Democracy in a rush?
With 361 people registered to address the executive committee, and Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti claiming that one-quarter had already spoken at least once on budget cuts, Mayor Ford’s allies voted to limit speaking times to two minutes for the public and three minutes for politicians (down from five). That caused some to grumble that the process was “democracy in a rush,” a claim that the Mayor emphatically rejected. “How much more democratic can we be? I think this is our tenth meeting, including committee meetings. We’ve been out in their backyards. We’ve been to Etobicoke, Scarborough, 25% are the same people coming back,” he told reporters. At the last marathon meeting, in July, the executive pushed through the night to finish in time for the long weekend. This week, they have to be done in time for a council meeting on Wednesday.
The sleeper issue in this whole budget debate may turn out to be user-fee hikes. Toronto has 3,700 user fees (such as for the TTC, recreation programs and water consumption), that generate $2.8-billion for city coffers, and cover about 26% of the operating budget. But the municipal government also heavily subsidizes some user fees — on average, the city recovers 30% of what it costs to deliver a recreation program, for example — which means that some may go up dramatically. Chief financial officer Cam Weldon told the executive that the city should aim for full cost recovery — including what it costs to deliver the service and capital costs — where possible, but noted there may be exemptions for those who can’t afford to pay. Councillor Adam Vaughan was outraged that capital costs would be factored into user-fee calculations. When asked if Torontonians might see some fees double, Mr. Ford said “this is a debate we’re going to have to have… We want to have the minimum impact on the people who work, live and play in the city.”
Where not to cut
Mayor Ford declared at the outset of the meeting, “I am not ready to close libraries.” However, he says that hours may have to be scaled back to balance the books. Other Ford preferences: he believes that street cleaning and snowploughing are “core functions,” and he is vowing to continue clearing windrows, the piles of snow left at the foot of driveways, which is only offered in the suburbs.
Several Torontonians told executive members they would be happy to pay more taxes. Erin George, who came to speak with her four-month-old daughter, said the last property tax increase of 3% in 2010 cost her family $76 and “I think that’s a fair price to pay for the amazing services that make Toronto the city we want to raise our family.” Budget chief Mike Del Grande: “You realize if we were not to touch anything, … [to raise] $500- million that would be 25% [tax increase]?” Ms. George said her family supports paying more taxes, including the vehicle registration tax, which city council abolished last year, and “other smart taxes like that.” Opposed to tax hikes were Matthew McGuire, with the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, and Livia Johnston, who noted “not all property owners are wealthy,” and seniors live in fear of being taxed out of their lifelong homes, which she said “amounts to elder abuse.” All of this wrangling is for naught, insists Councillor Gord Perks, who produced a document showing how the city routinely lowballs its revenue. Based on that, he thinks Toronto will have a $242-million surplus this year, plus a similar surplus in 2012, which he says means the budget gap is actually $400-million less than the $774-million figure that the city manager and Ford lieutenants quote.
Certain members of the executive routinely dismiss speakers as “special interests,” which may cause some offence (although one deputant noted that anyone who lives in this city has a “special interest” in its prosperity). Sprinkled among mothers and children and seniors, several people represented groups, such as the Toronto Environmental Alliance, the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, Arts Etobicoke, the Children’s Aid Society, the Toronto Real Estate Board, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and an Anglican minister. Occasionally, Councillor Mammoliti would interrogate speakers about who pays for them to be there and where they get their funding.
The majority of Torontonians approve of Rob Ford’s performance, but fervent Ford supporters are dwindling quickly, says a poll conducted by Ipsos Reid for Global Television. In a weighted survey of 414 Torontonians conducted throughout the last week of August, Ipsos Reid found that 62% of respondents approved of Mr. Ford’s performance, but only 14% counted themselves as “strong” supporters. Nearly half of respondents (46%) reported that Mr. Ford was a “big disappointment.” Compare that to April, when Ipsos Reid counted Mr. Ford’s mayoral approval at 70%, and his “strong” approval rating at 31%. The poll also found that most Torontonians hold a more measured view of deficit reduction than simply stopping “the gravy train.” Sixty-two per cent of respondents reported that “the deficit is rising for lots of reasons, and that we shouldn’t do anything too drastic to get things under control.” As for exactly what non-drastic measures to take, only a few — contracting out TTC services, merging Exhibition Place with Ontario Place and stopping the practice of having police officers at construction zones — met with wide support. The poll surveyed 414 respondents and has an estimated margin of error of 4.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, Respondents in the sample were carefully selected to represent the various demographics of Toronto’s adult population.